Father Ekkehard was a kindly man. He had been the abbot for our small monastery probably longer than I had been alive. This morning he saw that I was out of sorts and he pulled me aside for a discussion. In a small, closed knit community like ours, it was not good to allow frustrations or animosity to fester. Father Ekkehard had become a master at nipping such issues in the bud.
“It isn’t you, Father, or any of our brothers that is bothering me. It is the bell.”
He motioned for me to go on. I was the youngest novice at the monastery. Only a few weeks before I had left my father’s home in the adjacent village to take up orders. I was still learning to adjust to my new life.
“Living in the village, the ringing of the bell was background music. Yes, we would hear it and scheduled our day around it, but here those infernal bells are just so much louder.”
“I’m sorry, Father. I meant no disrespect.”
“Then you should choose your words with more wisdom and care. Please, continue.”
“There really isn’t anything more. Those bells here just seem so much more obtrusive than when I was living in the village.”
“These bells are how we order our lives. Is it this life here at the monastery that is the heart of the problem?”
“No, Father Ekkehard. It isn’t this life. Really, when I think about it, most of the time the bells themselves do not vex me so. It is only their ringing for Matins and Lauds.”
Father Ekkehard leaned back in his seat and gave me a knowing smile. “This is a natural thing. You enjoy your sleep. So do I. So do we all. Sleep is a good, necessary, and important part of our life. But the very purpose of the bells at those times is to wake us from our slumber. They call us out of our natural life and they point us toward the supernatural.”
I left Father Ekkehard’s office shortly thereafter. He gave me a parting challenge. When I hear those early morning bells, I should declare that my desire for God is greater than my desire for sleep or any other thing of this world. It is true. My desire for God is first and greatest. But sometimes it is hard to remember that when I am waking long before the sun.
Later that day, about an hour after Sext, I heard the bells again. They were ringing at the wrong time. This time it was not the normal sound the bells usually make. It was a loud, persistent clanging that did not end. We all knew what that meant. Vikings.
At the time I was down by the estuary. A few other monks were with me and we were checking over the fish traps. We immediately returned them in the water and hurried back inland. Partway between the monastery and village, there is a strong palisade. It had been built as a protection against the Norse raiders for both the village and the monastery. My fellow monks and I were some of the last people to crowd into this defense.
Being the young and impetuous man that I am, I nudged and jostled my way from the gate to a good viewing spot at the wall. Standing beside me now was Father Ekkehard. We saw three Norse ships coming toward us from the horizon. Two slowed and turned slightly while the third came closer to investigate. This third ship came to a stop just outside the range of our bows. Their rowers expertly held the craft in place despite the strong current. Eventually, it backed away and the three boats regrouped heading upriver in search of easier prey.
A couple of the young men from the village would be out there tracking the progress of the boat until they were safely beyond us. I had been one of those tasked with that task until joining the monastery. The rest of us would spend the evening, or two, huddled together safe behind these walls until word reached us from those boys.
As we settled down to wait, Father Ekkehard nodded toward my muddy feet and sandals. “I’m guessing you don’t think those bells are so infernal now, do you?”
“The bells call us from the natural to the supernatural but there is another purpose they have served today. They warn us to be alert to the enemy.”
“Yes, Father. If not for those bells, I would not have known that a raiding party was a-viking. Down by the traps we would have never seen them in time. We would all now be slaves.”
“Praise God that has not happened today.”
“Next time those bells ring for Matins, keep that in mind. Just as the bells rang to warn us of physical enemies, so do the bells ring for prayer that we might be alert to our greater enemy. He also prowls around like a Norse ship seeking whom he might devour.”
I was pretty that Father Ekkehard was taking liberties with the scripture, but I dared not call him out on it. Besides, I have never seen a lion except in pictures. It is difficult to know how much of what I see in those pictures is nothing more than the artist’s imagination. I would venture to guess most of those artists were other monks just as sheltered and naive as I was. A ship going viking, however, was a familiar sight that strikes fear in all who live near the sea.
We were pulled out of our discussion when we noticed a growing commotion over at the north end of the palisade. It seemed that Agnete was going into labor. Her husband was in a panic as the other women kept trying to shoo him away to give space for the midwife.
“Come,” Father Ekkehard said. “We have a nervous young father to settle down. He is not much older than you and I would appreciate your help.”
Father Ekkehard and I drew Godwin away. A few other men from the town, some of his closest friends, also joined us. It seemed that Agnete was a few weeks early. The excitement of the raider ships and the fast trek up the hill from the town seemed to speed this birth along. As is his way, Father Ekkehard’s presence helped settle him. It was good because the rest of us would have done the opposite if left to our devices.
Now and then one of the women would come over and give us an update. Pretty much that was, “All is well and the midwife says this is a normal delivery.” Normal it might have been, but swift it was not. We sat and talked and sat and talked for hours that seemed an eternity. The sun set below the western wall of our wooden palisade. The stars came out and crickets could be heard over the soft conversations of various clusters of men and women. Every few minutes those crickets and conversations both ended as Agnete’s cries rang out once again. I always thought of her as a soft-spoken woman, but that night my illusions were shattered. You could see from the way he sat on his hands and looked toward the women that it was all Godwin could do to keep from joining them. Not that he would have made it that far. One of his best friends was the smith and Edwin had strategically placed himself between Godwin and the women.
Sometime after dusk smoke was spotted to our northwest. The Vikings had found their prey. We all were half relieved it was not us and half afraid it might be friends and neighbors we knew. Speculation was raised as to whose homes or which village had been hit, but between the darkness and the intermittent clouds, it was impossible to guess with any accuracy. None of us slept. We knew that those three ships would likely be returning our way as they made their way back to the sea. There was better than even odds, they would still be looking for more plunder.
About a half-hour before dawn one of the weary boys came running up to tell us that the danger had passed. They had followed the three ships back past the town and out to sea. Most of the townsfolk and monks returned to their homes. The midwife refused to move Agnete, however, and so Godwin also refused to stray too far.
Finally, after a particularly violent round of huffing and puffing, screaming and shouting, the sound of women’s laughter was heard. Shortly after, it was the hearty wail of a baby’s cry that brought a smile to all our weary faces. Two of the boys had been pressed into joining us men for just this moment. One ran off towards the town and another towards the monastery.
Father Ekkehard was exhausted and leaning on me as we made our slower trek back down to the monastery ourselves. We were about halfway there when the bells from the church started ringing out again. He stopped and smiled.
“That is the most beautiful sound those bells can make, don’t you think Willem?”
I nodded and he continued.
“They are ringing in the joy of new birth. This is why we associate bells with Christmas. They ring out the coming of the birth of God’s Son. He was born that we also might be born again. There is no sweeter music than the ringing in of a newborn birth.